Safety rules on lead in kids' products perplex and polarize

A federal law taking effect Tuesday makes it illegal for anyone to sell children's toys, books, clothes and jewelry if the items contain virtually any lead or phthalates, chemicals commonly found in plastics. But testing whether the products contain either is not required for a year. And a bill co-sponsor told the agency in charge of enforcing the ban that it doesn't necessarily have to do so.

Confused?

So is a collection of librarians, department stores, thrift shops and work-at-home eBay sellers.

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, signed by President Bush in August, was supposed to clear up confusion for consumers and businesses about the safety of items sold for children under age 12.

The law came about after a 2007 outcry and recall of lead-tainted toys and children's products, many from China. It sets limits on how much lead or phthalates are allowable and requires manufacturers, importers and retailers to prove their products or clothing have been tested.

But late last week — bowing to pressure from businesses and librarians — the Consumer Product Safety Commission changed course and delayed the testing requirement until February 2010. It kept the ban in place and is writing rules aimed at clarifying much of the confusion, but those will not be finalized for months.

Businesses and safety advocates are polarized and perplexed.

Toy Industry Association President Carter Keithley says the decision amounts to a "don't ask, don't tell, but don't sell" policy.

Lead has been banned for decades in house paint and in paint used on toys because it causes brain and kidney damage. Phthalates are linked to genital malformations in boys and interfere with the endocrine system.

Along with prohibiting lead or phthalates in kids' products, the new law makes other safety standards — for cribs, high chairs, strollers and other items — mandatory.

Once the testing requirement kicks in, manufacturers, importers and retailers must have certificates showing their products were tested and meet the new limits. Testing will cover every aspect of a product or piece of clothing, such as the ribbon on a hair barrette.

Current inventories do not have to be tested for phthalates, but the lead ban is retroactive and includes all products in stock. Many major retailers, including J.C. Penney, are already testing products and requiring their suppliers to do so.

Containing lead but still sold

Items that don't meet the pending new limits are still being sold by businesses large and small. They're made in China, India and even the USA.

In December, independent tests by the Michigan-based Ecology Center found that one-third of 1,500 toys it tested had "medium to high" levels of lead, arsenic, toxic flame retardants or other hazards. About 3.5% of toys and 15% of children's jewelry had lead levels above 600 parts per million, according to the report, found at HealthyToys.org

There were 69 recalls of toys containing lead in 2008, and there are seven already this year, according to CPSC records.

Environmentalists and children's health advocates say lead at any level causes brain damage. The science on phthalates is much newer, but studies in humans and animals have linked them to health problems in young boys.

Parents and pediatricians say they don't want to gamble with children's health and just want to be able to buy toys with confidence.

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